Cavs vs. the Field: Who’s the Smarter Bet to Win the East?

Cavs vs. the Field: Who’s the Smarter Bet to Win the East? article feature image

Oct 17, 2017; Cleveland, OH, USA; Cleveland Cavaliers forward LeBron James (23) and Boston Celtics guard Kyrie Irving (11) meet after the Cavs beat the Celtics 102-99 at Quicken Loans Arena. Mandatory Credit: Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

It’s probably time to start planning how to fade the Cavs.

All year long there’s been a push and pull with basketball fans and media.

“The Cavs are somehow worse on defense this year.”

“Yeah, but they do this every year.”

“OK, now they’re 29th in defense. Only the Kings are worse.”

“Yeah, but they do this every year.”

“They were never 29th last season  and half of the rotation is different. It’s not the same team.”

“Yeah, but LeBron.”

“OK, now they’re talking about how they’re not sure if this can be fixed, about how the house is on fire, and they are 1-7 vs. the Celtics, Warriors, Raptors, Rockets, and Thunder.”

“Yeah, but they do this every year.”

“They literally had a team meeting where they called out Kevin Love because they think he was faking an illness.”

“Yeah, but LeBron.”

You get the idea.

For a long time, the Cavs were big favorites to win the East vs. the field. No more. As of Tuesday evening, Cleveland is only a slight favorite (-115), compared to -105 for the field.


The odds shift isn’t a huge surprise, given the current state of things. The Cavs have lost 10 of their past 13, are ranked, again, 29th in defense with only the Kings behind them, and just had what sounds like a disastrous team meeting.

Now, this could be the lowest point. So the field’s odds may creep back up into plus-territory when the Cavaliers inevitably go on a run, or if they make a big trade at the deadline.

In the big picture, though, the Cavs show no sign of being able to turn this around. Their issues defensively aren’t isolated to personnel, scheme, or effort. It’s all of the above. That’s not getting better. The question is whether the rest of the East can manage to actually beat Cleveland


Maybe the biggest reason that the Cavs have been such a huge favorite to win the East and remain the favorite at this point has nothing to do with Cleveland and everything to do with how bad the rest of the East is.

Boston is a young team with a bottom-15 offense, and Brad Stevens’ teams have struggled to find higher gears in the playoffs.

Toronto hasn’t won a Game 1 with this core yet. Not in any series. No matter how improved DeMar DeRozan looks, no matter how good the bench is, no matter how much their offense has changed, you have to have skepticism for how they’ll look in the playoffs.

Washington is that super talented young man who keeps mouthing off to his boss and getting fired from jobs he should be great at.

Milwaukee just fired Jason Kidd and their defensive principles have gone to trash.

Miami’s a “better than the sum of its parts” team.

Indiana is a feel-good story but doesn’t have the experience or firepower.

Philly is brutally young and unproven.

Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

But on the other hand, all you really need against this Cavs team is to not fall over yourself. The Raptors legitimately do look better, and with the experience they’ve gained from multiple playoff runs, they’ve at least learned more about their failures.

Boston’s defense is by far the best in the NBA’s, and it’s built on sound principles, long/athletic wings disrupting the perimeter, and Al Horford anchoring the rest. They have a model that’s worked vs. LeBron before: Keep the game close with defense, then close with a phenomenal clutch player in Kyrie Irving. If they can get a few guys to hit shots, they can put pressure on a team on the edge.

Then there’s the risk of the real upsets. Giannis Antetokounmpo is a special player who can take over the moment and the kind of talent who has given LeBron problems. (James has elected not to defend Antetokounmpo most of the time in their regular season matchups.) The Pacers have great transition offense vs. one of the worst transition defenses in the league.

Philadelphia has Embiid who can wreck you on both ends, and shooters like J.J. Redick and Robert Covington.

It’s not about your faith in any of these squads in particular … it’s about your belief that one of them can catch this particular Cavs team.

Usually betting against LeBron straight up is considered gambling malpractice. He’s undefeated in the first round, and has made the Finals an insane seven years in a row. But there’s still this feeling around the Cavs like the 2014 Heat, which made the Finals but just barely, and a growing sense of doom. The Cavs are openly looking for a trade, but there’s no trade that can redefine their identity the way they need.

LeBron James is one of the greatest players ever, and it would take extreme circumstances for him not to deserve the benefit of the doubt.

That’s just how bad a shape the Cavs are in.